Arrests net pair suspected in jewelry theft spree

CREVE COEUR, Mo. — Two alleged jewelry thieves who may be connected to crimes in a dozen cities are in federal custody after a quick-thinking legal secretary alerted police in this suburban St. Louis community. Both suspects have long criminal histories and ties to organized crime.
Walter Frank Zischke and Theodore Victor Ristich appeared at a preliminary hearing in St. Louis on June 30 where evidence was presented on the thefts, according to David Rosen, Assistant United States Attorney for the Eastern District of Missouri. At that hearing, testimony was presented that Zischke, 61, formerly of Cicero, Ill., was positively identified as having been involved in a jewelry theft in Harrisonburg, Va.

 Detectives in several police departments told Antique Trader that the arrests mark the end of a crime spree that has been going on for years. It stretched from Nebraska to Virginia, and targeted antique shops and jewelry stores. It was an attempted break-in at a jeweler’s that proved to be the pair’s undoing. 

 A legal secretary whose law office is in the same building as the jeweler was putting in some weekend work time on the morning of June 17, a Saturday. When she pulled into the parking lot at about 7:15 a.m., she noticed two men crouching near the main entrance to the jewelry store. The woman parked a short distance from the building to watch them. The two realized they were being watched, got into their van and drove off. The secretary followed them in her car and called police on her cell phone, giving a description of the van and its location. The van was stopped by police within 1 1/2 miles of the jewelry store.

 When Creve Coeur police officers got Zischke and Ristich, 60, out of the van, they found plenty of potentially incriminating evidence: a tumbler from a door lock, which later proved to be from the jewelry store; the 2006 Blue Book of United States Coins; a pile of well-worn road maps; and several copies of antique trade publications.

 Detective Thomas Rich of the Creve Coeur Police Department told Antique Trader the men also had several large plastic storage tubs “and lots of tools, including seven cordless drills.” Also discovered were blank Express Mail shipping labels. Authorities speculate that stolen jewelry from past heists was immediately shipped out to be melted down. Rich said investigators have been able to link Zischke and Ristich to a metal-processing plant in Massachusetts, which he declined to identify. Rich said the plant operators are not suspected of any wrongdoing.
 Zischke and Ristich are suspected in thefts in Nebraska, Minnesota,
Illinois, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Virginia. The thieves’ m.o. was always the same, and they were bold when it came to committing their crimes, sometimes in broad daylight. They would disable the lock of a business’ main entrance and take the tumbler with them. The burglaries were usually completed in less than three minutes.

 At the June 30 hearing, Zischke also admitted involvement in a series of heists dating back to the mid-1980s that netted about $40 million in jewelry, said Rosen, whose responsibilities include prosecution of labor racketeering, organized crime, official corruption and white-collar crime. Two decades ago, both Zischke and Ristich were associated with Chicago crime boss Robert J. “Bobby the Beak” Siegel. According to a 1998 report in the Chicago Sun-Times, Zischke and Ristich cooperated with authorities probing Siegel’s jewelry-theft ring. During the June 30 hearing, Zischke indicated he and Ristich were working on their own now, Rosen said.

 Between 1984 and 1990, Siegel’s gang committed 13 robberies from stores in California, Florida, Oklahoma and Wisconsin, according to court records obtained by the Chicago Sun-Times. “The brazen robberies were well planned and executed,” the Sun-Times report said.  The robbers toted automatic weapons, and routinely wore “Halloween masks, trench coats, bulletproof vests and cream-colored golf gloves as they hit stores during regular business hours, often getting in and out in under two minutes.”
Siegel has been tied to organized crime in Chicago for most of his life. His specialty was robbing jewelry stores, banks and armored cars, plus hijacking and counterfeiting. A confessed murderer, Siegel, 70, was arrested in 1992 in Geneva, Ill., and eventually entered the Federal Witness Protection Program after revealing information that prompted a corruption investigation of the Chicago Police Department.

 Rosen said Zischke and Ristich would next appear at a status hearing later in July, in St. Louis, to determine if indictments would be handed down. They remain in federal custody.